When a group of reluctant children arrive at a museum for a field trip, they are taken on a secret tour by their guide Mary Beth who brings them to a lavish exhibit about the legends and myths of Mexican folklore. And so begins the real story of “The Book Of Life”, as Mary Beth tells the story of a small Mexican town called San Angel and how two gods: La Muerte, the ruler of the land of the remembered and Xibalba, ruler of the land of the forgotten came to place a wager on the destinies of three young children: Manolo, Joaquin and Maria.
As the children grow to adulthood, Manolo and Joaquin remain firm friends and keen rivals, each striving to live up to their ancestors’ reputations and when Maria finally returns from boarding school, La Muerte and Xibalba return to see which of Maria’s would-be suitors will be successful, and win the wager.
There’s a lot of generic material in “The Book Of Life”, with well-worn messages about following your heart, leading your own life and learning to have real courage woven into a story of friends competing for the hand of a fair maiden against the backdrop of a larger supernatural rivalry but what sets it apart is the stunning visuals and the respectful yet playfully irreverent intertwining of Mexican Folklore into every fibre of this film. Director Jorge Gutierrez has expressed his disappointment that he has not managed to make the film look exactly like the images in ‘The Art Of The Book Of Life’ books, but he is being far too hard on himself – the film is stunning. Exploding with colour, life and detail, every frame is crammed with things to delight and dazzle and will absolutely reward repeated viewings. While the ‘Romeo & Juliet’-esque narrative is a little trite, the supporting characters are richly inventive and vibrant, brought to life by an superb voice cast (Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Ice Cube, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo to name but a few) and a fiendishly catchy Mariachi-infused soundtrack which includes both original songs and muy picante cover versions of songs from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ to Mumford & Sons’ ‘I Will Wait’.
This was a smash hit as far as The Mertmas was concerned, not just visually but musically as well and I’m pretty sure this soundtrack album will soon be rivalling “Frozen” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy” for playing time in the car.
Despite its morbid underpinnings (it frequently deals with the idea of death) and sinister character design (you can feel the influence – albeit a light touch – of producer Guillermo del Toro), the story is anything but frightening making it the perfect Halloween treat for the whole family. It’s a little bit spooky, but even the cunning Xibalba isn’t really a villain and it’s really a celebration of the importance of remembering those we love. In a year where we’ve been tricked by more than a few lacklustre animated films, finally – a real treat.